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Ellen Cooper: Perspective

By Lynn Snyder

View of Ellen Cooper’s painting studio

At Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia, we often have the opportunity to meet visiting artists like Ellen Cooper. A few years ago, Ellen gave a portrait demonstration for the Portrait Academy workshop series sponsored by the Portrait Society of America. I spoke with Ellen during that demonstration, and she graciously agreed to share her story and invited me to visit her home studio. In this article, I am happy to give you a window into her approach to portrait painting as told from Ellen’s perspective.

Art and creativity were woven into my childhood. My mother is an artist who painted portraits, mostly of children, in pastel from life. Clients would visit her home studio, and I’d often meet them and see the finished work. The paintings impressed me – they were dynamic and fresh and a part of my mother’s everyday work life. I sat for my mother for a full-length oil portrait when I was six years old. I remember the posing, the smell of paints and turpentine, and the feeling of being singled out for something special. She never gave me lessons, but art and creativity seemed a part of everyday life.

Ellen Cooper, "Mary Kathryn," oil on linen, 34 x 24”

While I learned formal drawing in art school, I did not get the same training in painting. I drifted away from painting and pursued graduate study in scenic theatre design which expanded my visual and conceptual skills. Many years later, while raising children, I found my way back to painting. I took portrait workshops with Daniel Greene who provided foundational information on materials and method. His demonstrations were astounding, and it was a great experience painting from life.

For me, portraits are all about the subject, and getting to know them is critical if my painting is to tell their story. Fortunately, people interest me. When I get a new commission, I’m instantly curious about who the person is, their history, life stories, viewpoints and the role that chance and purpose play in their lives. I like to observe how people appear, the clothes they choose, their body language and how their personalities dictate the way they carry themselves. I spend time getting them comfortable and talking, so I can see clues of their individuality. I ask what’s important to them – even if they are children. I want my portrait to speak to their character and attitudes.

I don’t paint many commissioned portraits entirely from life. I use a combination of life studies and photographs that I personally set up and light. Painting from life is my most effective way to observe and experience my subject in an immediate way. It also forces me to prioritize the visual information. Our conversations stay with me later as I paint the portrait in my studio.

Ellen Cooper, "Nnenna Oje," oil on linen, 41 x 29”

There are two major aspects to my working process. Firstly, I help clients navigate the portrait commission process and work with the subject during sittings. During sittings, I sometimes do pencil thumbnail sketches in various locations and settings to test out options. I take candid photos of the subject sitting, standing and in various poses.

I also do an alla prima painting of the subject during a sitting. I’ll mostly work on color notes of their skin and hair tones but also on structure and form if I can get to it.

The second is how I work through the actual painting. Back in my studio, I cull through photos to best support the painting I have in mind. I do a small preliminary paint sketch, about 6”x8”, in oil on Mylar (polyester film or plastic sheet) to show the light, color, atmosphere, pose and composition of the proposed portrait. Here’s where I resolve the major issues at a scale where it is very easy to see all the shapes and relationships at once. This sketch is as much for the client as for myself, so we can understand and familiarize ourselves with the components of the painting before I start working in large scale.

Mylar is a ready paint surface, and the paint moves around easily on it. Painterly things happen on this small scale that are so immediate and unintended that I am often excited by the paint sketch itself. I try to bring some of this to my full-sized portrait. The client then needs to approve the sketch, and if changes need to be made, it’s far easier to do this at small scale.

Ellen Cooper, "Vortex," oil on linen, 48 x 32”

I love the starting phase of paintings. It’s always exciting and revelatory to grasp the basic composition and see how the values relate and the light develops. I initially work in a monotone and sometimes let the grisaille dry before working in color. I then do a thin, loose block-in of the average colors in the light and in the shadow for each area or object. From here I tend to work all over, building more refined color, midtones, lighter planes and reflected light. I build up a few layers to compare and assess the color and value of large areas before working toward detail. I work with a grey hand-held palette, laying out my colors and then mixing a few values by adding white to each.

What a treat it was to talk with Ellen in her studio. Her generosity and sense of ease made me feel at home as she described her working process. I hope you find her story as interesting and insightful as I did.


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